Standing Alone

My college professor brother often spoke to me about his graduate students struggle to make important decisions about their futures, and how the stress of indecision took its toll. One common plight: take the not quite right job, or continue with their education and incur more debt? Rather than make a choice they might later regret, too many drift, not realizing, from my brother’s perspective, that rarely is there only one right answer, and that even wrong decisions can be dealt with and corrections made. Still in their twenties, most of his students stand alone in the face of uncertainty.

So different from my experience. When I consider the significant choices I made on my own, once outside the immediate orbit of parental influence, I can think of only two. First, at seventeen: where to go to college. Then, at twenty: whether to marry.

Once married, and for the next fifty-three years, I made virtually every major choice in concert with someone equally invested in my future. Not that the issues Len and I faced were thus made simple, but each decision had a shared impact, and we knew we could fall back into each others’ comforting ways if things went awry. And that made a difference.

Now I’m once again making decisions on my own, but comfortable doing so, drawing upon a lifetime of experience. Not so for most young people today who postpone serious personal commitments and remain independent far into their twenties or even thirties, called upon along the way to make important choices without much major decision making experience.

So, my brother would tell his students these two simple stories from his past:

His first paying job, when he was only fourteen, in the 1940s, was sorting potato chips. Hard to imagine in this automated age. He was told to grade the chips as to quality and size, pushing each into one of four separate bins. During early days on the job, he repeatedly approached his boss, unable to decide on the proper category for a particular chip. He was told: Bruce, you are simply going to have to make these decisions. So, he did, without any negative ramifications.

Many years later, with a recent PhD in hand, he worked in a physics laboratory in Princeton, N.J. and took part in the interviewing process for a new hire to join his research team. He approached his superior and urged the selection of a particular candidate, only to have his choice rejected. He persisted, arguing the merits of his favorite applicant, and his boss was finally worn down and said: OK, but I’m telling you here and now, Bruce, you will have to take full responsibility for this decision.

My brother agreed. He reasoned: if this guy works out well, I’ll get all the credit. If he doesn’t, what’s my boss going to do, go to his superiors and tell them he turned the hiring decision over to someone else? Not likely. At worst he would be told he’d made a bad call. That was a risk he was willing to take.

These stories, and the conversations they generated with his students, was his way of encouraging them to get their feet wet in the responsibility waters, wanting to assure them it’s not nearly as frightening as it seems from dry land.

Since my brother’s early decision-making days, and my own, risk analysis has been elevated to a science of sorts. Will it help these young folks who stand alone leave the edge of the future abyss and choose next steps? Perhaps, but how nice it would be if there were loving arms to break a fall.